Monthly Archives: December 2015

Gift from a homeless man

Christmas blessing from a homeless man

This year, my family and I started off our Christmas morning the way we always do: we go around to the homeless in our neighborhood, greet them warmly and wish them Merry Christmas, offer them a simple gift… water bottle, extra socks, nothing fancy. Every year, we are blown away by the joy and gratitude, but this time something special happened, and I want to tell you about it.

Why we do it

Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, and we give gifts out of a literal take on the scripture that says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did for me.” Caring for each other, and especially for the poor, is very near to the heart of the Christian message and is mentioned multiple times throughout the bible, but especially in the New Testament:

Talk about homeless people in our society is usually about “solving the homeless problem”. Some of this conversation is conducted from the compassionate perspective of seeing everyone safe and warm at night, but that is the minority. More at issue, most of the time, is the fact that our society’s nice, clean, and well-dressed don’t like homeless people. You know the arguments: They smell bad. They are a nuisance. They are mentally ill, possibly criminals, potentially violent. Like all stereotypes, there may be elements of truth in all of that, but they loom much larger in imagination than they do in actual fact, and meanwhile much good is left undone out of fear.

How we do it

I’m a parent too. I’m not about putting my family in danger any more than you are. It’s not that hard to be sensible. We’re in a group. We’re in public places in broad daylight. We’re using common sense about whom to approach and praying over the whole process. We’re not “solving homelessness” and we’re not trying to. Yes, we also donate to causes that provide real structural support to the homeless, but Christmas morning isn’t about that.

In the hundreds of conversations I have had with homeless people, the #1 need that emerges again and again is simply to have their humanity acknowledged. The late Brennan Manning, author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, told a story about when he was homeless (due to alcoholism), and a woman once scolded her daughter away from approaching him, saying, “We don’t even look at that! That is just filth over there! That’s all that is.”

Contrast to the time when my daughter was younger, maybe 5, and she and I were speaking to a homeless man who seemed sad. She spontaneously hugged him, and he immediately began to weep.  The grateful look of shock and relief on his face is one I will never forget. We can’t always give to the homeless, we can’t always hug them, but a look in the eye and a sincere smile do 90% of the job and cost us nothing.

What we receive

Many times, the homeless that we visit on Christmas morning want to give us a gift in return. One year, when a lady found out that my daughter loves to read, she dug out a well-traveled copy of her favorite book, Black Beauty, and joyfully presented it to her. This year, we received a work of art traced through with scriptural wisdom: the word “full” forming a bridge across faith, hope, and love, making them come “full” circle. Our “word(s)” becoming a double-edged “(s)word”. The young man who had drawn it sat with us, patiently, excitedly, teasing out, teaching. We left the encounter in a glow of spiritual discovery as profound as after any sermon.

So things to remember: first, spiritual wisdom is often conveyed in the humblest vessel. It is still very much true today that God chooses the so-called “weak” and “foolish” in order to shame the worldly “wise”. Second, the Prayer of Saint Francis says it best, “It is in giving that we receive.” In what we call “generosity”, we are often the ones who gain the most.

Stressed & broke at Christmas

Overwhelmed & broke: 3 survival tips for this season of joy

My family and I love this time of year: the lights, the elf,  the movies and music and cold days, the time with family… Surprisingly for a blog about Jesus, most of my enjoyment at this time of year comes, not from “churchy stuff”, but from regular old beauty and joy and kindness, mixed in with a healthy dose of beloved traditions and just a dash of Christmas magic. The “Jesusiness” is more like Galadriel’s power in Lothlorien: you can see and feel it everywhere, but it’s right down deep where you can’t lay your hands on it.

We all know, though, that there’s a dark side to this favorite time of year as well. A friend’s recent Facebook posting captured it nicely:

So it is 10 pm and I just stopped helping with homework! My sink is full of dishes, I have no clean panties, I need to pay bills, I need to do xmas shopping, I need to wash my face, I need to check on the elf and I have spin class at 5:30…my Dad was at my house…I worked from 8 to 5….my husband is traveling for work AGAIN……blessed, life is good but this type of schedule does not make for a happy me… so if I seem short with you and need some alone time, let me have it!!

Is there anyone who can’t relate to that? All the ordinary stresses and pressures of life seem magnified at Christmas. As I thought about it, it occurred to me: it’s the application of that “deep Jesusiness” that gives me the ability to suck all the marrow out of the season without going crazy or going broke. Here are three specific tips for doing just that.

Financial Peace

Used to be, every year, my Christmas excitement was flavored with just an undercurrent of dread. So many expenses are non-optional, right? They’re traditions! Travel for the family Christmas party (including gifts for everyone there), having a roast for Christmas dinner, ice skating,  Disneyland! “Christmas costs what it costs.” I used to get a mental image, running my American Express card through that reader slot, that it would be on fire when it came out.

That doesn’t happen any more. We finally figured out how to stop overspending when we took Dave Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University” in 2013. It turns out you can say no to some of that stuff at Christmas.

  • Offer to stop exchanging gifts with adult siblings. The first year, my sister and brother-in-law wrapped up an empty box and labeled it, “The gift of nothing… for the man who has everything.” It was one of my favorite presents ever.
  • Start new, affordable traditions. Now we visit local light displays instead of Disneyland, and a local Christmas street parade instead of ice skating.
  • To limit spending: fear the credit card. We take cash out of the bank, separate it into envelopes, and when they run out, that’s it. Cash may seem risky, but the fact is we could misplace it all the first day and still lose less that we used to overspend every year.

A lot of the obligations we had to live up to, it turns out, were only in our minds at best, or were just ostentatious showing off at worst.

Take Sabbath

Two sisters were having Jesus over for dinner. Can you imagine getting the house clean enough for him?? One sister (Martha) was frantically running around doing all the work; the other one (Mary) blew it all off and just came in the living room to hang out. When Martha angrily demanded Mary come help, Jesus told her no, Mary’s the one doing it right.

That’s us at Christmas. The desire to be Instagram-perfect drives us to deplete our emotional reserves and then some. Just don’t. At work, when it’s time to be home with my loving family, I am rarely at a good stopping place. Those are what I call “lift your hands” days: just stop typing, push back your chair from the desk, and walk away. Not everything is done. It’s OK.

Sabbath is for us. It happens in the midst of our work, not after every possible task is finished. There is no work so important it can’t pause for the good of our souls, even harvesting before the frost or healing the sick… certainly decorating for Christmas.

Give Grace

It’s a cliché, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Doubly so at Christmas. As we celebrate, a lot of people are heartsick for how it should have been, and they don’t wear signs. At a minimum this time of year, be willing to believe the best of the people God puts into your path, and be willing to love them in his name.

When we think of charity at Christmas, everyone knows about food for the hungry & coats for the needy, but what about a sincere smile and a heartfelt “thank you” for that harried grocery clerk? Or an extra $5 in the tip for that server, never mind that the cook burned your toast? What about asking that coworker, “How are you today?” and investing the 90 seconds to actually listen to the answer?

This Christmas, you may not need to house that pregnant couple who couldn’t get a room at the inn, but there are many simple acts of mercy that are just as important. In the end, that may be the most Jesus-y way to honor the season of all.

Christmas wishes with family

15 Christmas wishes for saving the world (especially #5)

This Christmas, I don’t want any stuff. What I want is our society to be a whole different way. Here are my Christmas wishes:

I wish we would judge one another based on others we get to know, not others we only hear about from people just like us.

I wish our leaders wouldn’t refer to themselves as “Christian” unless they want to learn about sacrificial love and follow the example of Christ.

I wish it wasn’t so hard to agree that our society is too violent, and that responding with more violence will not solve that.

I wish we weren’t so angry.

I wish that different people would sit down together in peace more often and talk; we might  realize that we are all the same.

I wish we could figure out health care.

I wish we would encourage one another to face our fears. Our easy, natural reaction is to separate from those we fear, but this only makes the fear grow.

I wish that Christians could overwhelmingly be known as the ones speaking the heart of Christ.

I wish we could all be calling out the need to shelter the poor and the destitute, that none of us were the ones walking past in the street with our heads down. (I was hungry and you fed me…)

I wish we were the champions of peace, lamenting the violence in our society, that none of us were the ones asserting the only solution is to kill them before they kill us. (All who draw the sword…)

I wish we could be the warm and gentle voice of love and healing to all, not the angry voice of condemnation over some but not others, as if God sees any difference. (All fall short of the glory of God…)

I wish we could be full of grace. (By the same measure you use…)

I wish that we could be emissaries of startling mercy toward people we’re supposed to hate. (Which of these was a neighbor to him…?)

I wish we, especially, would be known as those who love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Hate is not going away. Misunderstanding is not going away. Prejudice is not going away. But all of those things are evils to be shunned, not blessings to be embraced. This time of year, we Christians celebrate a new hope, the birth of a savior, good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. What were the Christmas wishes of the angels that night? “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

That is my wish today for you, and for us all, as well.